The 1969 funk lyric refrain lingers in our cultural consciousness: “war, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing” (Star, 1969). Yet, this Remembrance Day, aghast as we are at the continued inhumanity of humans to humans, we might recall that without war many bad deeds go unpunished. Thanking our veterans reminds us that being Canadian is about more than culture, it’s about extending universal human rights to our fellow humans.
Being educated that we may make the world a wiser place is a noble idea. Yet, for past generations, doing one’s duty to one’s education extended far beyond the frontiers of textbooks. Case in point: having just graduated high school, my paternal grandfather and great uncle both enlisted in the Canadian forces. The year was 1939. Serving the next six years as an aircraft mechanic with the RAF and a merchant marine traversing the Atlantic “many times” was their post-secondary education. At the time, I’m told, their young minds were animated by a sense of colossal evil that must be vanquished at any cost. Only, unlike today’s first-person shooter video games (or the scourge of mass shootings ranging in recent years from Nova Scotia to Maine), each soldier and nurse had only one life to live. Or give, as the case may be. As a kid I recall my grandpa describing the sense of relief when, finally, in 1945 everyone realized that the war was really almost over. Possibly we can relate in a puny way as one or many AU classes wind down and the exam rears up as a doable final battle. The real test of our learning, however, is how we carry ourselves in the cultural world – do we fall into the churning morass of sanctimony and confusion that holds sway in the online meme-ocracy? If we don’t value our freedoms we may have them torn away, one meme or algorithm at a time. As students we stand as possible peace-givers every time we interpret the news of our times.
Remembrance Day is not only about bowing our heads perchance to shed a tear for all the families who grieve their lost children for a lifetime. November 11th can also be a stoic yet scholastic opportunity to place our present times within a broader historical perspective. Not a TikTok version of perspective either, where clarity and brevity are substituted for the rawest of emotions and then subtracted from cerebral function in a manner that would make even Phineas Gage (he of railway-spike-through-brain-and-lived-to-tell-the-tale fame) blush. Nope, historical perspective stare us right in the face when we consider the recent atrocities by Hamas. Rather than finding a way to blame the victim and calling it research, we must assess the facts on the ground. If this terrorist act happened on US soil there would be 40 000 fatalities, taking into account population differences (online). Killed were 1 300 civilians, many of them mothers and babies and all of them outside of the rules of combat as laid down by the Geneva Conventions that normally are vigorously defended by the social justice stooges who currently tend to wave Palestinian flags on college campuses.
And then there’s the hundreds of hostages treated at least as badly as any POW in a Japanese camp. Here’s how Canadians fared over there when the rules of law were ignored by Japanese troops:
“Three months after Victory in Europe the Second World War finally concluded when the Japanese surrendered to the United States on August 15, 1945. However, the war had yet to end for the fifteen hundred Canadian soldiers held in Japanese Prisoner of War camps. Veteran George MacDonell recalled that the Japanese army was furious about the surrender and that the malnourished Canadian POWs found themselves surrounded by hostile Japanese troops. Fierce beatings were common. It was another month before MacDonell’s camp was liberated by American troops.” (Online).
The Hamas attack is a familiar refrain from major wars in history; back in World War I Germany invaded Belgium and felt themselves put off by locals supposedly firing civilian sniper shots at their heavily armed selves. As punishment, “on August 23rd, 1914 the German army took revenge upon the Belgian city of Dinant for what it falsely believed to be the actions of Belgian francs-tireurs (“free-shooters”, or non-military partisans). This revenge took the form of the burning of over a 1,000 buildings and the execution of some 674 civilians. The oldest among them was in his 90s; the youngest was barely a month old. These civilians were killed in a variety of ways. Some were bayoneted, others burned alive; most were bound, put up against walls, and then executed by a volley of rifle fire.” This heinous collective punishment led to a propaganda campaign the likes of which the British Empire had never seen. The Rape of Belgium, it was termed. Yet, often we are led to assume that such callous inhumanity on the part of the Germans was overblown – people don’t really kill babies on purpose, do they? Historical fact sadly shows that in fact the Germans did just that. And so did Hamas. Reaching our mind’s eye back to the twisted present day where pro-Palestinain protests often look the other way when they want to contextualized or intersectionalize or otherwise obfuscate an issue, we come face to barbaric face with the reality of what Hamas does:
“There is evidence of mass rape so brutal that they broke their victims’ pelvis — women, grandmothers, children…people whose heads have been cut off, and women in their night dresses woken up and shot…faces blasted off … heads smashed and their brains spilling out…a baby cut out of a pregnant woman and beheaded and then the mother was beheaded. … Women and children burned to charcoal. Bodies murdered with their hands tied behind their backs.” (Kumar, 2023).
When we remember Canadian veterans who bravely fought so that evildoers could be punished we must we remember that even today the acts of Hamas are by some seen as understandable or even noble retribution for injustices. These quislings imply that that morality and violence are relative – but isn’t that kind of thinking best left in our philosophy departments, not in debates over public policy that affect real innocents? Our academic helmets here ought to come in handy – if we lack a moral compass about basic human actions then our higher education doesn’t have much ground to leap to enlightenment from.
Never Again, Again
It’s reasonable to consider the original November 11th slogan: “never again” and maybe even to ponder if radicalized people of any violent stripe are a clear and present threat to the world our fore-bearers fought so hard to enable. Growing up, “never again” was a repeated term used during Remembrance Day to refer to how after the Great War everyone agreed in principle not to have another war, at least not one like that. And then, the Second World War taught my relatives that sometimes we have to repeat the task of making the world safe for civilized humanity. But for Israel, and the world, “never again” also means never allowing anyone to make pretenses, let alone actions, toward the wholesale genocide of the Jewish people. However, it seems some academics didn’t get the memo, or lost it in a sea of cultural relativism. Comparing other instances of cultural vandalism to the gas chambers of the holocaust demonstrates neither intellectual bravado nor a sense of historical awareness: all it does is ignore the unique horrors meted out by the scourge of anti-semitism at the darkest hour of modern history. The Holocaust was a crime against humanity like no other. And, unlike apartheid movements in places like South Africa, those who protest the oppression of Palestinians by the state of Israel have given up any moral high ground by protesting in support of the Palestinians without simultaneously condemning the actions of Hamas. As Nelson Mandela stated: “no form of violence can ever be excused in a society that wishes to call itself decent.” Let we forget, the awful reality of war is that when it must be fought it can only achieve its goal with a moral sense of the evil it seeks to eradicate. We therefore bow our heads to veterans of the past who saw the difference between justice and savagery. Hopefully Remembrance Day reminds us to keep our humanity close to our hearts even as our minds unveil difficult truths about society and history.